The trout festival at Pitrufquén

Lago Villarrica feeds into the river at Pitrufquén. Summer, 2023

At the weekend, we went to a trout festival in the rather small town of Pitrufquén. An event discovered in the pages of the local newspaper, the sort of newspaper you buy cheaply from an enthusiastic chap who strolls around town hollering. It’s the first paper I’ve read in years. And its horoscope pages are addictively awful.

The festival was being held on the banks of a stony river in a park of pines and eucalyptus beside the town of 26,000 inhabitants, all of whom – based on the five-minute drive through – seem to live in bungalows with pleasant square gardens.

We parked in the woods and I applied sun cream. Our friends sought out their artisanal beers and JT bought me a fresh blueberry juice – one of us would have to drive home. Although Pitrufquén is one of our closer neighbours, it’s still a good 50 minutes away in the car. Kind of demonstrates just how rural this area of Chile actually is. Especially compared to England.

A man with a microphone strode around chatting with the people at the gazebos, street food stalls and tables of artisanal goods. His voice echoed loudly from an empty stage, which had been set up ready for the regional champions of the cueca, the traditional Chilean dance, to perform their choreographed seduction. Including handkerchief waving. As he passed through the stalls, the microphone man enquired what the vendors were selling and for what price. His disembodied voice told us the skewer of barbecued beef was a good price. Very fair. As was the potted succulent. Where are you from? Are you enjoying the festival? He discovered a woman from the exotic country of Spain and declared the trout festival international.

JT bought me some earrings.

Monday afternoon, wearing my new earrings for my online writing class, we debated the definition of contemporary writing. We all had different ideas about what time period contemporary would refer to, and there were comments about it having some relevancy to today, an echo of current life. I couldn’t help but wonder: if contemporary literature is a global phenomenon, then to whom exactly should it be relevant? Would the trout catchers of Pitrufquén have felt represented? Probably not. Probably not even in the Chilean literature I have read.

Any definition of contemporary literature remained a shoulder shrug. We could not conclude an answer, and nor did we really care to. As there is no standard definition, the question felt a tad unhelpful. The academic definition is a shoulder shrug too.

Yet, it did prompt me to reflect on my reading choices. How much contemporary British literature do I actually read? Not much. Even less before the degree. Studying has changed the balance: after reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline, I read the rest of the trilogy, and after reading Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, I read Hot Milk, and having just finished Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, I’ve suggested to my mother that we augment the family bookshelves with the rest of Evaristo’s work. My mother’s gone shopping.

I actually read much more Latin American contemporary fiction than British. I guess this is reasonably unusual and I wonder how this exchange is influencing me.

One of my goals when moving to Chile was to read the books produced in Chile. I started off with Isabel Allende because she’s the most obvious, but there are other women such as Lina Meruane and Carla Guelfenbein who I happily recommend. Both are available in translation.

Sometimes, changing our behaviour for the circumstances is part of accepting the realities we face. It’s part of becoming part of a group or belonging to a society. I ask books: where will you take me and how will I learn? I read a lot of Latin American women because I’m a woman living in Latin America, searching for that perspective. It occurs to me that what I’m doing with my reading is earning a right to belong. This place has become my home because I deeply care about it, and one of the ways I care is by reading.

These days, I’m mostly vegetarian, but at the festival I devoured my barbecued trout. Fisherman had been up early to catch it for me, and the chefs ran between the smoking barbecues in thirty-something degree heat. It felt the right thing to do.

Waiting to be reborn

On Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos)

Storms coming, Coñaripe, February 2023

Night. My head a little fuzzy, not from wine, but from having woken with a migraine this morning. I hope, but nothing fully shakes a migraine, nothing other than a good night’s sleep. Wishing in a cool breeze from the open darkness – 37 degrees outside today – the white ceiling dotted with tiny black flies, I’m waiting for the room to become more accommodating of sleep.

The children two floors up show no sign of going to bed. High-pitched play. They know I exist. They’ve popped their little brown faces around the hedge that borders the garden and seen me, sitting there, reading. Angelic faces with cherub noses; I wish they’d sleep.

Green tea with jasmine. I’ve been reading Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, admiring it without loving it. The third of a trilogy, and probably the one I enjoyed the least (not itself a criticism). The first of the three, Outline, I read for university; not my usual choice because ‘intellectual white British woman’ sits too close to home. I’m trying so hard to push myself into other, less-comfortable spheres.

At first, I disliked Outline. It wasn’t real; the conversations were false, stylised, gossip. Was it all in the narrator’s head? The writing steps back, out of believable dialogue and into a smooth, unbelievable eloquence – Cusk’s voice. Once I accepted its design – accepted the request from Cusk that the reader abandons any expectation for dialogue that sounds like speech – I settled down.

Although, saying that, the passivity frustrated me, maybe because it recalled a timidity of voice I occasionally feel. Maybe, because I get frustrated by people who seem incapable of helping themselves. Creative writing instructors go on about giving ‘agency’ to the protagonist, but the protagonist, Faye, rejects ‘agency’. A sponge, absorbing, barely reacting. Her decision for passivity was her limit.

Surprisingly, suspense didn’t falter. I would have thought it might. Instead, it grew addictive. The narrator holds herself back, restrained, but under the surface, judgement, conflict, anger. A woman’s unsayable, un-permittable anger. The self, destroyed by divorce, ashes of anger.

Despite not being divorced, I have known fire that burns through one’s sense of being, when one’s one narrative, the story of self, the story of being, ruptures. To comprehend myself, my story, I disjoint my own narrative – creating a before and after: I divide into before my loss of self and after I began to reassemble. The space in between too uncomfortable. Faye is trying to identify herself in the ashes, and when she can’t, she refuses to be reborn.

Faye, or Rachel Cusk. An intentionally hazy line. She’s a writer teaching a writing course in Greece, as Cusk has. She’s a writer, divorced, just as Cusk is.

Metaphors hang heavy in the book, giving the impression that the first-person narrator, Faye, reads plenty of poetry. So much, it has sculpted her thinking. At first, I noticed the metaphors, then I relaxed into the rhythm of the writing and left them to my subconscious, now I am going back, looking for them afresh, curious as to their frequency. How beautiful a second reading. Maybe, I am overly self-conscious about using metaphor and simile in my own writing, fearing that such imagery would stand out, maybe I should have more confidence, play more. It would be a declaration of poetic interest in someone who doesn’t read poetry. Then again, Cusk in interviews says how she doesn’t read fiction.

She does, apparently, read philosophy. No surprise then that all three books bloom with the sort of lines that could be underlined, highlighted, used to prompt a journal page or two. Reread and reflect. Apparently, autofiction is often analytical. Cusk’s is a contemplation on passivity and writing; yet writing is not a passive activity. It’s a play with from, creating a character, a narrator, who is merely an outline, but the reader fills the image in, joins dots, creates them for themselves if they don’t exist. What do we know about Rachel Cusk?

Transit, the second book, and Kudos were in some ways easier to read; I no longer expected anything to happen. I read both smoothly and rapidly. Very little happens. Like in the first, strangers, friends and colleagues – none of whom Faye seems to particularly like – offer their monologues.

In a way, these books are like an interconnected short story collection, and each story is like a Russian-doll. I’m weirdly reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with a story being told of a story. Faye is a frame. And, as in Conrad’s work, where the African characters exist as projected fears, voicelessly, there’s something uncomfortable in the voicelessness of the criticised, ex-spouses, children, alluded to but in a way that pats the particular storyteller’s ego. Everybody is lying. They are terrible liars. Lying to themselves and to Faye. Faye too, lies. Deceiving the reader by not taking responsibility for her own story.

Maybe we only tell such aggrandising tales of our foibles when we are struggling to convince ourselves of the truth of them. When I find myself talking in such a way, hiding key parts of the picture, I always end up feeling guilty. Or maybe we tell such stories when we have a dangerous sense of righteousness.

I had a close encounter with a Cusk-esque character recently. My partner and I picked up a hitch-hiker, a woman, maybe in her early fifties, on her way into town. This is nothing unusual to us. What was unusual was how she spoke: she started telling us about her childhood in a rural Santiago – Las Condes where all the skyscrapers now stand – imagine chickens and corn; her date the night before with a younger man who had reminded her of the importance of having a good time; how more soldiers were needed on the streets to eradicate the criminals; how valuable the military dictatorship had been in building these roads we were now driving upon; and it would have gone on. Her father called. She had to apologise, she’d missed his birthday, she’d been so busy, what with work and everything (the younger man?).

The conversation was in Spanish and, from my seat, I could not see her. She, in turn, had the illusion that I didn’t understand what was being said, an illusion I did not want to break. I found myself reminded of Faye. For once, passivity seemed an active choice.

The breeze on my face. Upstairs, the feet of children. Mama, mama, mama, mama, mama! Squeals and cries and more squeals and more cries. Too much stimulation. These children never sleep.

The wind has got up; the window slams shut. A storm comes. A command for bed.

Soon the schools will open again.


Villarrica, January 2023

My partner and I rent our flat and most of the furniture. On the wall in the living room is a television, which came along with the wooden parrots on the terrace and the broken, dying Jesus in one of the bedrooms. It’s not a particularly large television: I could probably lift it by myself, although not onto the unusual position it occupies high on the wall. If this were my house, which unfortunately it isn’t, I would remove it.

My relationship with television has been one of decreasing tolerance. When I was a child, I would go to a childminder after school, and by the age of eleven I had already consumed more television than is necessary in a lifetime. My grandmother assures me that there is much to be learned on the magical box, but often, when I’ve watched television, I’ve either come away feeling like my intelligence was being insulted or uncomfortably manipulated.

My younger students assure me they don’t watch television, but this is a linguistic misunderstanding. I talk about television, meaning all the series they do watch, along with sport and film. Maybe I’m in the wrong here. I’m no longer sure how to categorise such activities. I don’t particularly care about the categorisation, but I do worry.

Sometimes, my partner really wants to watch a film. He puts on his sweetest, most persuasive face and I feel kind of sorry for him, but he chose to be in a relationship with me and knows that he’ll inevitably fail to convince. Very rarely, I’ll acquiesce, but inevitably this finds us at another wall. I want to watch something gentle, slow, beautiful and in Spanish. He’s looking for action and English. I do not need to watch people being killed. We cannot agree and give up.

Instead, I read. I mostly read books. I believe I would be categorised as an ‘avid’ reader, and perhaps this sounds threatening to some. I see it sometimes, when I express my preference, people apologise or lament their own lack of reading – if I had the time. I doubt it though. In fact, I’m going to say that people don’t read because, for them, reading is harder. It can be uncomfortable. It’s challenging. They find it’s easier to lose themselves in other activities, practised activities, and the less time they spend reading, the more true this becomes.

Reading is better. An entitled opinion?

I discovered flow in reading before my memories begin. As a child, when I was left alone, I would read or write. When I had my bedroom decorated at the age of eleven, my parents installed a wall lamp right next to my bed because they accepted my reading late into the night and preferred that I didn’t strain my eyes. If I had started a book, I would finish it. At my grandparents house, I would read a book each night. What I’d discovered was flow, that sense of losing time and awareness of the wider environment, being drawn entirely into the activity at hand. Flow, or you could call it happiness.

The childhood pleasure though wasn’t simply access to the large bookshelf that stood in our living room, or my aunty’s childhood collection of Chalet School and Enid Blyton, which just happened to be just above my head in my bedroom at my grandparents’ house. It was also solitude. Learning to slip into that happy flow of reading requires a quiet and distraction free environment.

By the time I found myself in the busy university staff room in La Serena in Chile, free to read between work, distraction had become less of a problem. Simply, I took out my book and read. The words on the page were a solace in the madness. No matter that I’d turned into something akin to a zoo animal, a human being who can focus.

What I’m curious about, and what I don’t know the answer to, is whether or not love of reading is something that one can learn as an adult. I presume it is, but I can’t say I know how it would be learnt. My partner reads daily and dedicatedly every morning after breakfast and before he starts work. He is often found reading a few pages from one book before switching to another, often another book in a completely different language. His skill is discipline, whereas mine is attention. For him, reading is equated with being successful, developing the intellectual circuitry and awareness that success demands.

For me, reading is joy.

The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave by Esteban Montejo


When I visited my sister in the summer, I paid a quick visit to the book barn. By a quick visit, I mean I was only lost in the labyrinth of books for a few hours and came out clutching only a dozen or so titles. One of these books was a slim Penguin paperback, published in English in 1970, entitled ‘The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave’. It was one of those books I picked up because I felt it would be good for me to read, but I was a little apprehensive about what reading such a life would entail.

Esteban Montejo was born a slave and grew up working on a Cuban sugar plantation. He escaped, probably as a teenager, and lived wild in the forest, avoiding contact with society from fear of being caught, punished and returned to slavery. He left the forest when, in 1886, Cuba abolished slavery, although on some plantations, as Montejo mentions, the freeing of the slaves took more time than others. He seems to have been an introvert, a quiet rebel, occasionally incredibly stubborn and clearly, he valued his independence and was willing to act to protect it. He talks about listening to his elders, particularly those who had come from Africa who still remembered their homes and who sometimes engaged in cultural practises (particularly magical ones) which hadn’t been incorporated into the Cuban cultures. He’s critical of the Christian god, who he treats with more suspicion than the ‘witchcraft’ of various African gods.  His understanding of some bible stories is mixed up, but some of his observations about religion and humanity are stunningly astute.

There are some things about life I don’t understand. Everything about Nature is obscure to me, and about the gods more so still. The gods are capricious and wilful, and they are the cause of many strange things that happen here and which I have seen for myself. I can remember as a slave I spent half my time gazing up at the sky because it looked so painted.

Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

Montejo returned to plantation work, this time as an employee. He describes his tasks and the options for labourers depending on their ethnicity. He mentions too, women’s work, and how hard the women had to work to maintain their families while the men were cutting cane. He talks a lot about dancing and gambling habits of his companions, but he seems to have not been particularly interested in either. His main interest, and he has no hesitancy in stating this, was women. He has a lot to say about women, courting practises and even fashion.

During the 1898 Cuban war of Independence, Montejo became a soldier. He writes about subjecting himself to the orders of his commanders, but he seems to find this difficult. He is a soldier who signs up because he shares the ideals of the cause, he believes strongly in freedom and independence for Cuba, yet, more than once he disobeys a command and finds himself punished as a result.

In the 1960s, he met the anthropologist, Miguel Barnet, who had heard mention of Montejo in a Cuban newspaper and who became fascinated by the centenarian’s story. This book consists of Montejo’s recollections of his first forty years, recorded and reconstructed by Barnet.

It was not at all what I had expected.

And if you want my opinion, it’s best not to die, because a few days later no one remembers you, not even your closest friends. It’s silly to make such a fuss o the dead, like people do nowadays, but it’s nothing but hypocrisy really. It always has been. For my part, I want my fiestas while I am alive.

Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

The bull ring at Ronda, Spain, March 2016

My Spanish students were always very opinionated. They seized up at the awkward exam questions but with other topics – the test their Latin teacher gave them, feminism and bull fighting – they were fluid and non-hesitant speakers. Bull fighting, they despised: a cruel sport for machismo old men who ought to wake up to the modern age, morality and manners.

Even in Hemingway’s day, the custom of bull fighting was often considered barbaric. He seemed to predict the slow decline and even to accept the change, with reluctance. His book, which I’ve read and found fascinating, is however not barbaric. It’s odd. Between the dense facts and the strings of poetic description, the nostalgia and the adulation, are tangents on writing and society, parenthood and death. It’s not a book that pretends, but it is odd.

I suppose, from a modern point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is clearly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it.

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

My problem with Hemingway is that the first book I ever read by him wasn’t a novel. It wasn’t the Old Man and the Sea which is supposedly admirable piece of literature, but I found a little tedious (perhaps I’m just too young still to get it). It wasn’t For Whom the Bell Tolls, which has in it all that macho, yet defeatist, fighting in it. It was A Moveable Feast, which, published after Hemingway’s suicide, is a memoir of those years in Paris where Hemingway screwed up his first marriage and knew it.

And it’s the self-awareness that I kind of find myself admiring. It’s the self-awareness which I found myself compelled by in A Moveable Feast, and which the glimpses of throughout Death in the Afternoon compelled me to keep turning the page, even if I lost track of which matador was which. More than anything, though, the book was a reminder to be careful. We jump to conclusions so quickly and on so little evidence. We are fast to speak, fast to criticize, fast to cast out moral judgements, yet remain so unaware of what we’re talking about.

It’s easy to attack the visible cruelty, it seems so much more acute. But much harder is recognizing and attacking the silent and invisible cruelty that hides unseen. How many of our own enjoyments result in harm to others, whether they be people working in inhumane factory settings, through the land that’s damaged in the hunt from raw materials or the dumping of waste. How many animals live and die for us in our current lifestyles, how many are affected by our impact on the environment, and how many of them live good lives?

My Spanish students were children, eager to be heard, eager to have the right opinion. Their passion, their beliefs, their insistence that the world must become a better place was heart-warming. In many ways they were much better at expressing themselves than older generations who might wait to check their audience is on their side before opening their mouths. They had lots to say; they had much to learn.

Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon

Suppose a Tulip. The Netherlands, 2017

Suppose a Sentence starts, in the way many books do, with a list of nice things intelligent people have said about the author and his work, but because this is an unabashedly intellectual book (a book for people who proudly think of themselves as being intellectual) then this fawning includes words like ‘erudite’, which to me looks like it means something inappropriate for polite company; ‘elegiac’ which I don’t know how to pronounce has little to do with the Spanish verb ‘elegir’; and ‘edifying’, which to me initially reads as closer to the word ‘edit’ than ‘educate’, like the book is one that will edit your mind, perhaps.

Some of these words strike me as fanciful.

This very good book (I’m paraphrasing) “…serves as both an autobiographia literaria and a vital exemplar of how deeply literature and language can matter in life.” I think Maggie Nelson is saying here that the book is a record of some things the author has read… but alas, as she’s using words not in my dictionary, I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fancy words; I just may not understand them. Suppose a Sentence invokes a lot of shoulder shrugging.

I don’t know. Or I don’t know exactly. These apologetic phrases crop up all the time in my classes. I often teach with the dictionary open in one tab and WordReference in the next, pre-empting my students’ questions. I don’t trust my pronunciation or my spelling, and so I invariably refer to dictionaries and phonetic transcriptions to guarantee that the words my students are learning are standard, ‘correct’. It turns out that a lot of words have many meanings; sometimes sifting through to identify the writer’s intent is an intense challenge. Sometimes my students think they know what a word means, and I have to push them to reassess.

The bright light. The intelligent look. Her bright eyes …?

Careful listening, close reading, real, acute attention… these moments of deep focus can reward us with a new perspective, an insight, a fresh appreciation. And I guess that’s what this book, Suppose a Sentence, is all about. When the pandemic has bound you to the house, your social endeavours have fallen apart, all plans disintegrated, then don’t fret: one can always suppose a sentence.

If only I knew what it meant to suppose a sentence…

The quotation’s attribution reads:  Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.

‘Suppose a sentence’ is a Gertrude Stein phrase.